Former state Sen. Michael Nozzolio remembers where he was when the idea was pitched.
The late Steve Bull, who led the Sampson “Salts,” was speaking at a ceremony at what is now the Sampson Memorial Naval & Air Force Museum in Seneca County. Nozzolio was in attendance.
“It was (Bull’s) vision, his dream, to create a cemetery on the site of the Sampson naval base,” Nozzolio said.
That began what Nozzolio calls a “25-year quest” to establish a veterans cemetery on the grounds of the former air force base and naval training station. When Bull served, he trained at Sampson. Now, he wanted to see at least a portion of the property set aside as a final resting place for veterans.
In 2011, Bull’s vision came to fruition. The Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery opened to the public. Since then, approximately 900 veterans and their dependents have been buried at the cemetery, which was operated by Seneca County.
But there was a bigger goal. State and local officials considered pursuing a national designation for the Sampson cemetery. According to Nozzolio, Sampson was too close to an existing national veterans cemetery in Bath, Steuben County.
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There were other hurdles, too. Nozzolio said they quickly learned that they would not be successful without the necessary infrastructure in place. That’s when it was decided to form “as much of a cemetery that we could put together.” The Seneca County Industrial Development Agency was a partner a “repository for funding,” Nozzolio added.
To run the cemetery, Seneca County turned to William Yale. Yale is a U.S. Navy veteran and funeral director who had worked for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration, an agency that oversees veterans’ cemeteries across the country.
Yale, a Honeoye Falls native, told The Citizen that he moved back to New York after working at Bay Pines National Cemetery in Florida.
“They were looking for someone familiar with (the National Cemetery Administration),” he recalls. “It just so happened I was there at the right time.”
When the Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery opened in 2011, Yale was at the helm. He remains its director.
The pursuit of a higher designation did not end. While becoming a national veterans cemetery wasn’t in the cards, there were conversations about a state-level classification. New York was one of a few states without a state veterans cemetery.
For years, there were discussions about whether New York would establish a state veterans cemetery. After Sampson opened in 2011, Yale didn’t think it would take long for the state to take the necessary steps. In the last decade, he admitted that there were a few years where it “got pretty dark” and they didn’t know if it would ever happen.
“We just needed to stay the course,” he said.
In 2020, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo included the creation of a state veterans cemetery in his annual State of the State agenda. He also appointed a panel to oversee the site selection process.
As part of the site selection process, the state Division of Veterans’ Services issued a request for information in February 2021. In response to that request, it received 10 proposals for the first state veterans cemetery.
When the site selection committee met in May 2021 to consider the proposals, the state Division of Veterans’ Services released a report recommending Sampson for the designation. Unlike the other proposals, Sampson had the advantage of being in operation and in compliance with National Cemetery Administration standards.
In its plans submitted to the state, Sampson noted it has the capacity for 80,000 gravesites at its 162-acre site.
At its next meeting, the site selection committee voted to designate Sampson as the first state veterans cemetery. Nozzolio believes the decision confirmed that the local efforts paid off.
“We felt if we build it correctly and manage it correctly, the choice will be obvious,” he said.
The state designation is one part of the process. After the site selection committee’s vote, the state Cemetery Management Board had to file a pre-application with the National Cemetery Administration to secure federal funding for Sampson.
A list of pending state and tribal government cemetery construction grant pre-applications released by the National Cemetery Administration shows that the state is requesting $2.5 million for the cemetery in Seneca County. If the funding is approved, the state will receive it by the end of September.
For many families, the Sampson cemetery represents hallowed ground — the final resting place for hundreds of veterans who served their country.
Jennie Ewing chose to have her husband, Wayne, buried at Sampson. Wayne Ewing, a longtime Ovid town justice, was stationed at Seneca Army Depot. When she first visited Sampson cemetery, she told The Citizen that she knew it would be “the perfect place” for Wayne’s burial.
But Jennie Ewing’s connection to the cemetery didn’t end there. She now volunteers at Sampson, helping with Wreaths Across America and other events. She also assists Yale if he has several services on a given day.
With the state designation, Ewing said it gives veterans the tribute that they deserve.
“The location is right and the land was available,” she continued. “It will be available for many, many years and generations to come.”
Gallery: A photo tour of Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery
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Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.